Scientist tears into leadership theories

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Professor John Antonakis has built a career out of ripping into the sacred cows of modern management theory. Mike Levy reports on some lively exchanges on

“There are too many snake-oil merchants in the guise of consultants, trainers and management gurus. Very little of what they claim is supported by hard evidence, most of which has been totally ignored by those making a lot of money by selling models and techniques that simply don’t work,” said John Antonakis in a recent interview with

The professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Lausanne has carved out a niche as a champion of evidence-based leadership research ever since he wrote The Nature of Leadership in 2004.

“The more I study leadership practice, the clearer it is that companies are not using the rich vein of scientific work in this area. In my own research on leadership effectiveness I find only one leader in 10 to be very effective (in terms of leader style). It looks like the 'Peter Principle' is alive and well in our corporate boardrooms,” he added.

Despite a mass of evidence showing that traditional carrot and stick methods are weak predictors of future performance, leaders still rely on them. Antonakis lamented, “Experimental evidence clearly shows that incentives can mess-up performance, creativity and other outcomes, particularly in high stakes situations. Incentives and performance are simply not correlated in many performance settings.”

A passionate advocate of the scientific method, in which theories are devised to predict behaviours and then tested against significant samples to see if the outcomes are as predicted, Antonakis has little time for management theorists who look at a group of successful companies or executives and then draw conclusions from their apparent similarities. “To find predictors of performance we cannot just study success,” he warned.

Some of the cherished models and systems that Antonakis dismissed include the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), and the DISC personality model.

“The MBTI is one of the world’s most widely used personality instruments but it is a very lousy predictor of leadership ability,” he said.

“Practice must be rooted in evidence, and by this I mean scientific evidence and not testimonials and ipse dixit reasoning. There is very little science behind NLP and the MBTI. Why are these models, processes, or whatever you want to call them not tested much? They hardly appear in any serious scientific journals. The MBTI pops it head in now and then (and this very rarely); NLP is definitely out, yet it persists in the world of practice.

“MBTI ‘type’ theory and more so NLP are not taken seriously in the scientific community because they don’t offer any serious testable predictions… There is a very biological and scientific veneer to what the ‘neuro’ is in NLP. The term is couched in science, NLP apparently explains how biological and psychological mechanisms affect behaviour and routines, and behaviours can be apparently reprogrammed via NLP interventions. If NLP were useful, it would not have been abandoned by research psychologists, unless all of them have made a massive and repeated mistake, which I doubt.”

The professor’s demolition job on these theories triggered an epic debate on our sister site TrainingZone, in which he defended his stance and expanded on his ideas in response to points raised by adherents of some of these techniques.

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29th Jun 2010 00:43

Big Five Yes but MBTI No? Talk about Hypocrisy

If anyone spent any time researching the Big Five (a diagnostic tool for mental illness!) and the MBTI, they would see that they're basically the same thing - the correlations are obvious on the surface, and there's been numerous studies showing the correlations.  So I must laugh every time a "scientist" lauds the Big Five but trashes the MBTI.  At least the MBTI is non-judgmental and doesn't presume to prefer one end of the dichotomy over the other, or to say that being in the hump in the center is better than the ends of the bell curve.  "Just because it's common, doesn't make it normal."

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29th Jun 2010 10:46


Hats off to John Antonakis. I think the most important point here is not which theories work or do not, but to raise the question as to the reqyuirement for theories stand up against rigourous scientific testing.

Before jumping off at the deep end, readers should really pick up a copy of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (a really entertaining but informative read, and was in my experience, and all I have lent it too, unputdownable) to get an understanding of why science is the only thing that can really test these assertions

I have come across countless nonsense on training courses in the past with 'experts' making assertions relating to defunct theories 50 years out of date. A total waste of money in my opinion

I shall be looking up Mr Antonakis to see what evidence he has to offer...



Accountants Southampton 

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By chatman
05th Aug 2010 02:21

What is leadership?


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